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La Difficulté d’Être

By Richard Grayson

The kindergarten teachers knew we would never remember to give school notices to our parents, so they pinned the papers to our jackets. They used safety pins and folded the paper over once if it was small and twice if it was large. Our mothers would unzip or unbutton us. Smiling, they would remove the notes to read them. In kindergarten most of us did not know how to read the notes, but I did.

II

And there was the time in third grade when I wrote Dr. Donovan Ward. Dr. Donovan Ward was the head of the American Medical Association. I had heard of him on a radio quiz show called Fortune Phone. Donovan Ward was the answer to one day’s quiz. The symbols given were “His symbol is the caduceus” and “his name transposed is that of an actor.” What I wrote Dr. Donovan Ward was this: “Is there a doctor who has the time to tell me how to live healthily?” I got a good-natured condescending letter in return.

III

In seventh grade I would have to pass a water fountain every day between my Spanish class, where we read Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Platero y Yo, a sad book about a donkey who dies at the end, and my math class, where we studied quadratic equations. Somehow I decided I would have to lean over and take a sip of water from the water fountain every day if I wanted to go on living. If I missed a day at the water fountain, something would always go wrong. On the way home from school I never stepped on a crack. I crunched every last autumn leaf I could stamp on. Walking home, Su Tom and I would make up words. Our favorite made-up word was lerax, which was like relax but even more relaxed. It was difficult for me to lerax.

IV

When I was seventeen, a Gallup Poll came out saying that religious belief had hit a peak in the United States of America. Ninety-eight per cent of the people believed in God. This was one year after Time magazine had run a cover, red print against black background, asking: Is God Dead? Questions like that didn’t concern me. I had always been in the minority, the other two per cent. I made sure I masturbated every other day.

V

In sixth grade, a deaf girl, Karen Pflanger, came into our class. She sat next to me. One day a substitute teacher called her a jackass because she didn’t respond to what the substitute teacher was saying. “She’s deaf,” I called out without raising my hand first, and the substitute teacher turned to me and said, “And you’re dumb.” For a week I thought of ways of getting even. I had the same substitute teacher when I was in ninth grade and she didn’t remember me from years before. Our regular social studies teacher had gotten cancer and she replaced him for the last six weeks of the semester. I was always the star in current events because I knew about Laos, Cyprus, Ruanda-Urundi. In my autograph book, the substitute teacher wrote: “I predict an exciting future for you.” I never learned what happened to Karen Pflanger.

VI

I was watching Walter Cronkite and there was this film on, a human interest story about this Welshman who wanted the United States and the Viet Cong to sit down to peace talks at his kitchen table. Abruptly the film was stopped and Walter Cronkite came on and said that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot dead. I didn’t go to school the next day, a Friday, because I had gym first period and I couldn’t imagine playing basketball in my gym uniform with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dead. I stayed in all weekend, feigning a cold, and then when the ghetto riots started and they burned down Su Tom’s father’s laundry, I became even more depressed. Back in junior high, Su Tom and I liked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because there were seven words in his name, more words than in anyone else’s name we could think of. A couple of months later I was watching Robert Kennedy’s funeral train pass New Jersey and kill two people standing too close to the tracks when Edwin Newman interrupted to say that the killer of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been caught. But now nobody is really sure who killed him, are they?

VII

In college I was popular. I had three girlfriends in succession and a dog named Garson Canine. I wrote editorials for the student newspaper condemning apathy and the Jewish Defense League. I called the JDL “hoodlums.” They threatened to beat me up. One of them who was more literate wrote me a letter. It said, “There’ll be a Jewish star on your grave just like there will be on mine.” Yet when we had the unveiling for my step-great-grandmother, I noticed there was no Jewish star on her grave or any of the other graves nearby. Only words.

VIII

Su Tom and I were in Hector’s Cafeteria eating tuna salad sandwiches. I had a sore throat. That morning I had taken an Alka-Seltzer. It was autumn, and there were leaves to step on. We were going to see Sweet Charity at the Palace Theatre. Gwen Verdon was the star. How we boys loved musicals in those days! Su Tom and I went to different high schools and we were talking about our drama classes. He was telling me about a scene he and a girl did in class from a play by Ibsen. I thought he said the play was called The Masturbator. It wasn’t till the middle of that night when I woke up with terrible gripping pains in my stomach and my mother gave me a hot-water bottle and mashed bananas that I looked up Ibsen in the Britannica Junior and saw that I misheard the play’s title. Later that term, when Jill Friedman and I were assigned a scene to perform, I suggested we do one from The Master Builder. It did not go over well at all.

IX

When I was an undergraduate, most of my good ideas came to me while blow-drying my hair in the morning. When I shaved, I had to wear my glasses so I saw myself too well to get good ideas. Su Tom thought it was strange that I shaved first, then showered, then blow-dried my hair. He told me most men shower first and then shave. Back then I never tried to grow a mustache or a beard. I shaved the space between my eyebrows and I shaved my big toe. When I clipped my fingernails and toenails, I put the parings down into the radiator, where eventually they disappeared. I never got an idea of any sort while cutting my nails.

X

One night I was thinking about my great-grandfather and how mean he was, making my grandmother go to work in a sweatshop when she was sixteen even though he was a millionaire furrier with two maids and a chauffeur. I was thinking what an Orthodox Jew he was and how being so religious contributed to his being a bastard and how glad I was when he finally died when, at that moment, the telephone rang. It was a wrong number, an old man who didn’t wait for me to say hello but who went on talking some nonsense in Yiddish, a language I didn’t understand. He sounded exactly like my great-grandfather. Finally I broke in and said, “I think you have the wrong number.” He said “Excuse me” in English and hung up. It made me feel sick to my stomach.

XI

In college I would often get discouraged and depressed. Once I said life was unfair. “Yes, there is no fair play anywhere,” Su Tom said, “not even in New York, the Umpire State.” We both liked puns.

XII

Then, one St. Patrick’s Day, the only time it ever snowed, I heard an old man give this toast in the McGuire brothers’ bar on Avenue N: “Health to your enemies.” I drank a lot that day.

XIII

On a tenth-grade biology test, I was asked to put down the average number of heartbeats per minute in human beings. I didn’t know because by then other things were more important to me than studying biology. I hated pithing the frog and then dissecting it. So during the test, I placed my hand over my chest, looked at my Timex watch, and calculated 69 heartbeats per minute. I rounded it off to 70. I just managed to pass that test by two points.

XIV

At one time I could tell you the answer if you asked me by how many percentage points did Hugh Scott beat Genevieve Blatt beat in the 1964 election for U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. Now I would have to guess. Maybe 51% to 49%?

XV

When my mother’s vision began to get clouded, it took her two visits to two different ophthalmologists before they realized it was simply that her eyelashes had grown too long. “You never get a busy signal when you dial a wrong number,” my mother used to say.

XVI

Applying to graduate schools, I had to fill out forms with questions like this one: “How do you describe yourself?” They gave you only seven choices: (A) American Indian; (B) Black or Afro-American or Negro; (C) Mexican-American or Chicano; (D) Oriental or Asian-American; (E) Puerto Rican; (F) White or Caucasian; (G) Other. Ever since kindergarten the choices haven’t matched the answers I wanted to give.  Is there a doctor who has the time to tell me how to live healthily?

 

Richard Grayson is a native Brooklynite and the author of several short story collections, including The Silicon Valley Diet, I Survived Caracas Traffic, Lincoln's Doctor's DogWith Hitler in New York, and the forthcoming And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorirmer Street. His story Three Scenes From My Life (With Guest Star Truman Capote), published in Me Three, was named one of the notable stories of 2005 by the storySouth Million Writers Award judges. Recent work has appeared online at McSweeney's, Eyeshot, Yankee Pot Roast, Spillway Review, Uber and Maladapted.

 

Photo "Eye 3" courtesy of Vea Avernalis, Wroclaw, Poland.

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